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The Greatest Comeback/David Bolchover

This life of Béla Guttman is not just the one of the best sporting biographies I have ever read but general biography too. The subtitle From Genocide to Football Glory says it all.

I suspect many will be unfamiliar with name of Bela Guttmann. He is best known for being the manager of the Benfica team that in the early sixties broke the hegemony of Real Madrid over the European Cup.

He was also both the father and pathfinder of the modern manager. He never stayed long at a club, made exacting financial demands on the board and athletic ones on his team.

He overcame the adversity of seeing his family wiped out in the Holocaust and escaping from a Nazi Labour camp by jumping a train with a fellow Jewish managerial legend Erno Erbstein, manager of the illustrious Gran Torino which perished in the Superga air disaster.

As a history of Judaism in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century the book is worth reading alone.

However David Bolchover’s research is exhaustive and he unearths many new aspects of his subject’s life.

Guttmann, for example, did not spend the Second World War in Switzerland; his long career, well into his seventies, was necessitated as he had a life-long gambling addiction and needed the money.

His peripatetic journey of management, which took him from Hungary to Rumania to Austria to Portugal to Uruguay and to Switzerland, might draw comparison with Jose Mourinho but for one important difference.

Guttmann had an attacking philosophy of seeking to score one goal more whereas Mourinho’s is based on constraint and constriction. It must also be remembered that in Guttmann’s era the manager did not enjoy cult status for which he is paid handsomely.

True he would not have to deal with agents but like Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho his relationship with the press was confrontational.

All three shared the same mission of total domination of the dressing room.

It’s a brilliant evocation of his life and the times. The only minor critique that some might make is that Bolchover does not disguise his Jewish sympathies. Many chapters begin with a harrowing account of the sufferings of Jews in Europe from the Inquisition to the Holocaust.

One true test of a biography is if it enlightens the reader. I did not know how big the Jewish contribution was to soccer in the 1920s. Béla Guttmann played for Hakoah Vienna, a wholly Jewish team. They toured the USA attracting huge crowds.

American soccer did not begin with Cosmos and MSL.

Indeed the New York team also called the Giants plundered the Hakoah side including Guttmann. Guttman took that team on tour to South America. He was truly a man of the world.

About Rex Mitchell

Rex Mitchell is a Brentford supporter from childhood. This has not prevented him having a distinguished Fleet Street career as a sports reporter and later deputy football editor. A widower, Rex is a bit of a bandit golfer off his official handicap of 20 and is currently chairman of his local bowls club. More Posts